The Public Worship Of God
Robert F. Turner
Early in this century some preachers in the midwest advocated an "order of worship" based upon Acts 2:42. Public worship had to begin with "the apostles' doctrine" followed in strict order by "fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers." Perhaps they got "Singing" into that order, by considering it a part of "apostles' doctrine." I remember "fellowship" was said to cover the giving of our means, by virtue of koinoneo in Philippians 4:15. Although they probably did not think of it this way, they advocated a liturgical concept of worship - as Webster puts it, "a rite or body of rites prescribed for public worship," something unknown in the New Testament.
This strict order of worship is not common among brethren, although traditional patterns (three songs and a prayer) may seem to have gained the status of law. Perhaps worse, some seem to regard public worship (with its "five items") as the exclusive means and place for worship. We can believe (as does this writer) that brethren are directed by divine precept and example to assemble; and when assembled to sing, pray, edify, lay by in store, and partake of the memorial supper. But we should not conclude that this is the whole of "worship." We must praise and give glory to God in every aspect of our life. W.E. Vine's Expository Dictionary says, "The worship of God is nowhere defined in Scripture. A consideration of the above verbs shows that it is not confined to praise; broadly it may be regarded as the direct acknowledgment of God, of His nature, attributes, ways and claims, whether by the outgoing of the heart in praise and thanksgiving or by deeds done in such acknowledgment."
Ever so often some "reformer" or iconoclast uses such definitions to ridicule our practice of orderly public worship. It is said there is no indication in Scripture that saints "gathered to worship." There are therefore no "acts of worship." One writer argued such acts as breaking bread or reading Scripture are worship only in the sense that talking, feeding the dog, and all the rest of daily activities are worship. No doubt some have a limited concept of worship, but this does not warrant "throwing out the baby with the wash water." If we must live a "worshipful life" (and I believe it), our public worship is a part of the whole. A general life does not negate its parts. Further, as a funeral service is a part of general mourning, a special period of worship and praise has its place in a life of service to God.
Abuses in conduct do not negate the practice of public worship. The iconoclast pounces upon any indication of "perfunctory" singing, prayer, etc., as reason to question our very concept of worship. We certainly are less than perfect in our praise of God, and our failures furnish ammunition for the malcontents, but there are much higher motives for changing our conduct. We want to improve our service to God because it is "to God," and we want to be acceptable in his sight. The Lord said some draw nigh, and honor him with their mouth and lips, "but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment of men which hath been taught them" (Isa. 29:13). The A.S. footnote says, "learned by rote." Our reverence for God must be more than quietness in an assembly, learned as a courtesy. We must truly bow our hearts before God when we engage in public worship. Our spirits must "fall at his feet."
Tainted lives may also invalidate our worship. Israel's multitude of sacrifices were "vain oblations" before Jehovah because "your hands are full of blood. Wash you, make you clean . . . seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isa. 1:11- 17). Jesus said, "If thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath aught against thee; Leave there thy gift . . . first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift" (Matt. 5:23-24). If our Monday-Saturday life is corrupt, our Sunday life will not be acceptable to God.
The very mechanics of a large number of assembled saints pose certain problems. Two families assembled in a living room may feel closer ties in their worship than four hundred assembled in an auditorium, but the problems are not insurmountable. One critic wrote, "We must look at the backs of each other's heads because our facilities are set up for a ceremonial performance." It seems to me any large number of attentive worshipers might face in the same direction, but this does not warrant a "ceremonial performance." The saints who come for the purpose of truly worshiping will do so, regardless of externals. I have seen brethren so wrapped in their prayers they were unmindful of their surroundings. But carpers may be too busy looking for faults to worship God.
We are told "the primary focus of our assembly should be horizontal, not vertical." Public worship does indeed have a saint-to-saint aspect (Heb. 10:24-25), and the saints are benefited by all things done (Col. 3:16); but the throne of grace is in heaven (Heb. 4,16) and the prayers of saints are "golden vials full of odors" presented before the throne of God (Rev. 5:8). If we are truly worshipping God the "primary focus" must be upon God (Heb. 13:15).
There are genuine problems in public worship, but they need something more than artificial corrections. We do not help the situation by ridicule or by denying "public worship." When "unstructured" service becomes spontaneous breaking forth with song, prayer, or exhortation the "decently and in order" of 1 Corinthians 14:40 gives way to emotional disorder. In a few years the unstructured service becomes a "structured unstructured" arrangement, with emotional opinions taking the place of authorized praise (Matt. 15:9). Scriptural "mutual edification" can be practiced without expecting ever male saint to be a qualified public teacher. Walter Scott once characterized a church which tried to practice this as "all mouth." Traditional procedure is neither right nor wrong of itself. Sometimes experience teaches us a good and useful way of doing things. Finally, "mere formality" in worship can not be corrected by the equally artificial dim lights, holding hands, mood music, and the like.
There are a growing number of attacks being made on public worship as taught and practiced by the church, and this article is only a brief notice and reply to such. We have cited excerpts from many sources rather than review one critic, but be assured the attacks are genuine. We know that our teaching and practice is not the standard of right (2 Cor. 10:12f), and we have tried to avoid "taking a stand" for our traditions. Far better, we believe, to acknowledge that some brethren have wrong concepts of public worship. False concepts and attitudes toward worship need correction; and we should not try to answer even ridiculous charges with anything less than Bible truth. But "three songs and a prayer" are not wrong because of a long history, and the public worship of God must continue if we are to follow Bible precedent.
Guardian of Truth XXXII: 16, pp. 487, 490